Conventionality went out the window for the New Orleans Saints' third preseason game, as further evaluation took precedence in New Orleans' 27-13 loss to Houston on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The normal script of starters playing into the third quarter proved nowhere close to the agenda mapped out by Saints Coach Sean Payton and his staff, who gave one series to starting quarterback Drew Brees and little more than that to other veteran players.
"It's been different," Payton said. "It's been much different for me than what we've done before and yet, it's a different roster right now. We've got a lot more experience.
"The thing we tried to look at closely was the amount of snaps guys are getting up to this point. Guys haven't missed any snaps and so, that was really a big part of it. The guys that I felt like that hadn't missed any snaps – we had some early outs on defense as well – that's just the approach we took."
With Brees (4 for 6 for 40 yards) heading to the sideline after leading the Saints to a field goal in his one series, Luke McCown (8 for 14 for 117 yards) played the rest of the first half. McCown also directed a drive that led to a field goal, Zach Hocker's 53-yarder as time expired in the first half, pulling the Saints to within 13-6 at halftime.
But unevenness was a running theme for the Saints on Sunday.
They were successful on just three of 11 third-down attempts (and were 1 for 4 on fourth down), produced one sack (their first of the preseason) and committed 11 penalties for 148 yards. The Saints now have committed 34 penalties in their three preseason games, including 15 against Baltimore and eight against New England.
"We got one (sack)," Payton said. "I told them, hey, we can have a second-line tonight. Obviously, we've got to improve in that area. It becomes a lot harder to play defensive back if we can't get to the quarterback or affect the quarterback.
"Obviously, we had a lot of different combinations of guys going. Penalties are still troublesome. The hidden yards were pretty significant. We'll take a peek at the tape, (but) that's one area that I brought up postgame with the players that we have to cleaned up. That'll cost us a game."
The Saints struck first on Hocker's 28-yard field goal, which ended their first drive and gave them a 3-0 lead. But the lead was short-lived; Houston responded with a seven-play, 80-yard touchdown drive (Alfred Blue's 1-yard dive) that twice was aided by penalties committed by cornerback Keenan Lewis – an offside infraction and an 18-yard pass interference penalty.
New Orleans sandwiched drives that concluded with punts around Houston's next drive, an eight-play, 39-yarder that ended on Randy Bullock's 49-yard field goal.
Bullock's 29-yarder with 46 seconds left in the half countered Hocker's 53-yarder as time expired, and the Texans scored touchdowns in the third and fourth quarters to overshadow Edwin Baker's 45-yard touchdown run for the Saints in the third quarter.
Baker ran for a game-high 49 yards on two carries, but it was another running back – rookie Marcus Murphy, a seventh-round pick out of Missouri – who continued to impress Payton.
Murphy ran eight times for 43 yards, caught three passes for 67 yards, returned a kickoff for 20 yards and had a long punt return wiped out by Jerry Franklin's unnecessary roughness, personal foul penalty.
"It reaffirms what we thought," Payton said of Murphy. "Each week, he's been close (to breaking a long return). I like the player. I like the player. He's making this team. He's making this team.
"I think he's got pretty good vision. I think he's explosive. I thought he did some good things not only in the return game, but he did some good things offensively underneath the coverage. I think there's a knack he has and he's not a returner that's going to try to run around the defense. He's going to run north and south, and I do think he's quick to accelerate."
Murphy said that Payton didn't directly relay the message to him that Murphy is making the team, but that didn't make the news any less pleasing to hear.
"He didn't actually say it to me, but it's a great feeling. But at the same time, I just know I need to get better every week. As a rookie I've still got a lot of things to learn, so I'm just looking forward to learning all I can and just moving forward from here.
"It creates fire, really. I think I have something to prove. I have to keep getting better every week and showing that this wasn't a one-time only thing, I can do this each week."
New Orleans closes out the preseason Thursday against the Packers in Green Bay.
Photos from the New Orleans Saints vs Houston Texans. Photos by Michael C. Hebert. (New Orleans Saints photos)